The Congressional Spectator

Shielding Congress From the People

The wrong response to the Tucson tragedy.

By 1.12.11

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When the rhetoric about the rhetoric dies away, lawmakers will still yearn to do something -- anything -- to prevent another shooting like the tragedy in Arizona last weekend. Or more accurately, they will yearn to have a record, come campaign season, of having tried to do something. A shiny piece of heavily bullet-pointed campaign lit is an underappreciated motivator for political behavior.

What are their options? They've tried stifling speech and banning guns and scary-sounding gun components. They will try both again, but the smart ones know those are unlikely to pass. The path with the most light at the end of it might be the one less traveled: shielding the politicians from the people.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., doesn't have a specific proposal for protecting members of Congress, but he knows that whatever measures are to be taken, they will cost more -- exactly 15 percent more. That's how much Rep. Jackson wants to increase the House budget, purely for security, of course. He has proposed repealing the 5 percent cut House Republicans just made and adding an additional 10 percent so members can buy themselves adequate protection.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., has picked this week to dust off his See-Through-Dome-Of-Member-Comfiness. He has said he intends to introduce legislation to create a Plexiglass-type barrier separating the House from the gallery, where the yokels sit. By doming members in like tiny models in a Museum of American History exhibit, he hopes to protect them from bomb-throwing citizens. Because, as the meltdown of Jared Lee Loughner showed us all, the real threat to America's politicians is D.C. tourists armed with pipe bombs.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has an even more neato idea. He wants a protective buffer around the president, vice president, all members of Congress, and federal judges. His wouldn't be made of Plexiglass, but paper. King wants a law forbidding anyone from being armed within 1,000 feet of any of the aforementioned federal officials.

One assumes that court bailiffs are excluded from King's proposed Armless Circle of Safety. But what about average citizens with concealed carry permits who just happen to end up behind a federal judge in the check-out line at the supermarket? Or hunters who pull up behind a member of Congress at a traffic light? If Justice Antonin Scalia takes Elena Kagan hunting, as he has proposed, would they both be in violation of the law? Would any other hunter who wanders within 1,000 feet of them?

If this bill passes, it should contain this provision: all members of Congress and federal judges are required at all times to wear a head band that projects a laser-beam circle extending exactly 1,000 feet so the people will know the precise boundaries of the Armless Circle of Safety.

Imagine if King's bill passed and, say, multiple U.S. senators and representatives decide to run for president at the same time, as in 2008. New Hampshire is an open carry state that also allows concealed carry with a permit. It's also full of hunters. In the heart of primary season, it's nearly impossible in some parts of the state to go two days without traipsing within 1,000 feet of a presidential candidate -- entirely by accident. New Hampshire doesn't have enough excess prison capacity to hold all the people who would have to be arrested if King's proposal becomes law.

During the 2008 primary, Sen. John McCain's campaign received death threats directed at the senator. His staff wanted to hire security personnel. McCain refused. He wasn't going to be scared by some random death threats. Knowing that someone might be out there waiting to do him harm, he nonetheless waded into every crowd, shaking hands, talking with voters, and listening to people. McCain understood the importance of connecting directly with citizens. He knew that entailed certain risks, but that was the price of being a public official in a republic.

In 2009, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., also received threats. She responded by holding constituent meetings in federal buildings. People had to pass through metal detectors to get in, and armed officers were present in the rooms and hallways. When people got angry at her because they perceived she wasn't listening, she literally erected barriers between herself and the people. A year later, she lost re-election.

In New Hampshire for a house party yesterday, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is mulling a run for president, rejected the idea of erecting barriers, either physical or in the law, to protect elected officials from the people. He said that if he decides to run, he won't bother with added security. "People should have access to their public officials," he told me in an interview.

Santorum expects people to get excited, even angry, about politics. "Passion is part of it. It damned well should be; this is your country."

You know what? He's right. It damned well should be. And with passion comes the risk of violence. As much as we might lament that truth, it is nonetheless an inescapable reality. Congress can erect barriers between its members and the people, but that won't protect lawmakers from being killed by determined crazies. All it will do is further divide the people from their elected representatives. We need less of that separation, not more.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.